‘When someone is seeking,’ said Siddharta, ‘it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.’
– ‘Siddharta’ by Herman Hesse
When embarking on a journey as a coach, usually via a course, a degree or experience under another coach, we naturally have ideas about how we want to do things, about how things should be done. These ideas represent safety, clarity and an element of assurance about the outcome.
At first, these theoretical ideas are all we have to go on, in addition to some personal life experiences that we may or may not choose to apply to our coaching practice. But as we progress through our careers we have a choice; we can seek to confirm what we already believe, by moulding the problems we find to our procrustean bed, or; we can be open and receptive. We can pay close attention to everything that goes on around us, we can be open to other ways of thinking, read other methodologies, visit other environments and do all of this with a critical eye.
In reality, if we truly want to become the best coaches we can, I believe this is the path. The skill of coaching is an emergent property, just as the sporting skills we are trying to teach are emergent properties. A great coach is someone who can find answers or solutions to a variety of problems, a great sportsman is no different. But in order to get to a place where we can solve multiple problems in a range of contexts and environments, either as a coach or a sportsman, we need to be exposed to a lot of problems. This is the long-term nature of achieving excellence, there is no shortcut.
Around a year ago I was fortunate to witness a talk by Kendal McWade, founder of the Instinctive Golf School. Kendal told the story of Seve Ballesteros, one of the greatest golfers ever. Seve came from humble beginnings and didn’t initially have access to a golf course, golf clubs or even a golf ball! In order to practice the sport he loved he fashioned a makeshift golf club and hit pebbles into holes that he dug on the beach. This wasn’t the only place he ever practiced – he eventually got access to golf courses along with the equipment he needed and spent many hours practicing there also. However, the obstacles he faced as a child provided a foundation which helped him to solve the range of problems found throughout a golf tournament better than most were able to. This is Nassim Taleb’s antifragility in practice – because Seve was exposed to such a broad range of circumstances while developing as a player, he was less deterred as a professional when tournaments didn’t pan out as he had imagined.
Skill is an emergent property that benefits from an ‘antifragile’ approach, with exposure to various different environments and problems. This is the case for both sporting skill and coaching skill. The difference is that athletes provide solutions to problems, but a great coach develops problems for the athlete to provide a solution to. This is a completely different skill set and requires a much deeper level of analysis of the task at hand – elite performance.
As we’re all aware, there are countless ways to achieve elite performance, no two champions ever took the same path, yet many coaches approach problems with a top-down approach, seeking to solve a problem the same way they’ve solved it before. Maybe this is why it is so rare for a coach to have more than one champion or championship team. It is only through opening ourselves up to the possibility that we’re wrong that we increase our chances of being right. It’s human nature to cling to what we know, this gives us a feeling of control, which is obviously important because without this we wouldn’t be able to navigate the world. However, we need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of being too reliant on what we already know and accept that what we don’t know is much more useful to us.
I would suggest to any aspiring coach, be confident with what you know and comfortable with what you don’t know yet. Every athlete we work with provides an opportunity for us to learn and develop, however, if we approach coach-athlete relationships with a ‘coach knows best’ mindset and seek to utilise a predetermined set of ideals, the vast world of potential answers will pass under our noses and not be found.
Suggested reading/watching links: